The first quarter of the year is over and the Irish Festival Fribourg/Freiburg is taking shape. A lot has been accomplished since I last wrote about the festival in October. Even though there is plenty more to do, and it feels as if new tasks are added to the list daily, we are also seeing the first results of the winter’s work.
I’ve attended my fair share of cultural events over the years but only once before actually worked on the organisational side. That was in 2003, the last job I had before I left Ireland for good, when I worked as a producer for Gúna Nua theatre company. I’d forgotten how enjoyable and satisfying it is to make things happen! But, my God, where did that 20 years go?
The most important breakthrough this year was that the Agglomération de Fribourg, the equivalent of the city council, decided to back the festival. Without their support, other potential funders would automatically have said no.
We got the news on March 9th after sending in our 25-page application at the end of November with 13 supporting documents. More supporting documents were requested in January, including a contract with one of the venues. The project was discussed at three meetings before we finally got the good news. A champagne moment.
Having the support of the Irish Embassy, Tourism Ireland, Fribourg Tourism and the Irish Film Institute International helped make our case much stronger. There are still some funding decisions to come in and possibly more applications to send out. In the meantime, we are getting everything else lined up – the programme, the venues, the website, publicity, ticketing, volunteers, insurance, travel … the list goes on.
Now it’s as sure as sure can be: Ireland is coming to Fribourg for the weekend of 6-8 October. Save the date! We’ll be announcing the programme in June, which is suddenly around the corner. Just a note that I’m not using the royal we. I’m joined in the whole enterprise by two brilliant Fribourg women – Julie Hunt and Deirdre Coghlan. Follow the festival Facebook page to hear more about our progress.
In other news, it’s a year since Voting Day was published by Fairlight Books, and two years since the Swiss edition came out. I’m visiting two Swiss schools in the next few weeks to talk to students who’ve studied the novel and I’ve been invited to a university in Poznań in Poland later this month for the same reason. I’m delighted the story is still making waves, and I love meeting readers of all ages.
On my own reading pile, I’ve been working my way through the excellent Wyndham-Banerjee series of crime novels, set in Calcutta in the 1920s. I was lucky enough to interview the author Abir Mukherjee at the Société de Lecture in Geneva last week. We were in the beautiful yellow room you see above. I don’t have photos of the event yet.
More reading tips
My standout read of the year so far is Haven by Emma Donoghue, an extraordinary, captivating story set in seventh-century Ireland, featuring three monks on a quest to found a monastery in the most inhospitable place possible – Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry. It was amazing to be transported back that far in history. Donoghue must be one of the most accomplished writers of historical fiction working today. I can also highly recommend the film adaptation of her 2016 novel, The Wonder.
And there’s a treat in store for fans of Swiss crime fiction with the publication of the second title in the Polizei Bern series by Kim Hays this month. Sons and Brothers centres on the suspicious death of an eminent (but not very likeable) heart surgeon whose body is pulled from the Aare in Bern on a winter’s night. The investigation leads detectives Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli back to the doctor’s childhood home in the Emmenthal region.
Time for me to wrap up and wish the readers of this blog a pleasant Easter break. This is birthday season in our home with three birthdays coming up next week, so my to-do list is taken over by presents, cakes and parties for the next while. A very welcome change.
I did my school-leaving exams in the summer of 1989, what’s known as the Leaving Certificate in Ireland. It was long ago and far away; the world was younger than today etc. Seventeen-year-old me studied like mad in the last couple of months. I always was a crammer.
We felt (and we were repeatedly told) that our whole future depended on how we did in those three weeks of written exams. If you wanted to go to university you had to get enough points overall, counting the six best subjects out of eight. It was intense but you also gained temporary VIP status in the family.
We had to fill in the application form for third level courses in January of exam year. I was good at languages and writing, but clueless about careers. My first choice was a Communications course and my second choice was French and Russian in Trinity College. As it turns out, those two fields have dominated my working life.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the man of the moment. He had been president since 1985 and suddenly everyone knew two new Russian words – glasnost and perestroika. I got into the French and Russian course, and found myself surrounded by enthusiasts for all things Russian. There I made friends for life.
That’s the beauty of higher education, finding other people who tick like you, and diving into the world of your chosen subject. I took a year off between second year and third year, spending the first half working in restaurants in Paris to improve my French and save for Russia. At the beginning of 1992, I was on my way to St. Petersburg for a semester.
The Soviet Union had just ceased to exist, replaced by the Russian Federation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Baltic States had achieved their independence, Gorbachev had resigned and Yeltsin was waiting in the wings.
In his resignation speech on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev touched on an important point, saying he was “concerned about the fact that the people in this country are ceasing to become citizens of a great power and the consequences may be very difficult for all of us to deal with”.
What he couldn’t foresee was that the culture of lying and repression that the ruling elite were steeped in would be revived to a terrible degree in the twenty-first century under a new self-serving, amoral and extremely dangerous leader.
The time I spent in St. Petersburg was the peak of my love of Russian culture. This memoir essay I read on Irish radio gives a flavour of the excitement. As students of the city’s state university, we had official student cards and could get tickets for everything in roubles.
We could easily afford long-distance train travel, which we took advantage of, visiting Moscow, the Baltics and Ukraine, all the way down to Odesa. Tickets for museums and the many theatre, ballet and opera productions cost next to nothing.
We were able to get by on ten dollars per week, which converted into increasingly large piles of roubles. Unfortunately, ordinary Russians were suffering economically while their better-placed and more corrupt compatriots were stripping the national assets. Organised crime took off.
I lived in Russia a second time in 1999 and I have spent the ensuing years feeling no desire to return. I have regarded the country with increasing dismay as Putin tightened his stranglehold on Russian life. The worst vainglorious tendencies of Russian people, tendencies often displayed by citizens of former empires, have been pumped up and twisted into something truly nasty, with deadly consequences.
Which brings us to today, and the war in Ukraine. There are decent Russians, who don’t subscribe to Putin’s genocidal project. It takes exceptional critical faculties and exceptional courage to maintain any opposition to such a powerful force inside Russia. I salute those people.
The rest of the population is awash in disinformation and short on options. They have been encouraged to take refuge in a dangerous brand of patriotism, built on grievance and false superiority.
I can’t express strongly enough how much I abhor what Russia is currently doing to Ukraine. We had a Ukrainian family staying with us for a few months this year. They have lost everything – their home, their school, their friends and family left behind, their business, their peace of mind, all their favourite things, all their plans.
Those losses are multiplied by thousands, millions, and the sad thing is that these refugees are the lucky ones. Countless others have lost their lives, or suffered horrific injuries, terror, torture, rape, bereavements.
In normal life, most of us apologise when we bump into someone, or rush to help when a person trips in the street. How can it be that one group of people is willing to inflict such terrible damage on another group? It is a question that has always been asked about humanity, a question that haunts me as 2022 draws to a close.
The people of Ukraine are foremost in my thoughts this festive season. As part of a communications project this year, I worked with several Ukrainian colleagues, and I have nothing but admiration for their dignity and fortitude. Even in that small circle, they have experienced so much disruption and fear.
The Russians like to talk about the Russian soul and how special it is. A cancer has taken hold of that soul, and there is a long and painful road to travel before it can be cured. Repentance will be part of the cure, though that seems very far off right now.
I was originally going to write a post about the novels I’ve read this year. One of them is The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan. It’s a gritty portrayal of Ukrainian citizens caught up in conflict, a difficult read but worth your time if you want to understand better. A gentler but equally affecting story is Grey Bees by my favourite Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov.
Wishing the readers of this blog a peaceful and cheerful Christmas break. I hope that we will have happier things to report at the end of next year. Take care.
(Photo credit: see link to the Ukraine-based content platform Depositphotos ‘Say no to war’)
There are lots of reasons why I would like to recommend the work of Swiss-American author Kim Hays. First, she writes great crime fiction, and if you like her debut novel Pesticide, there are more to follow soon in the Linder & Donatelli series. Second, her authentic, clever and gripping police procedurals are set in Bern, a city I know well. Third, she has served her time in the writing trenches and is now enjoying well-earned success. And, finally, she is my friend.
Kim’s heroine in the series is homicide detective Giuliana Linder, ably assisted by her younger colleague Renzo Donatelli. Both characters are sympathetic and have depth and realistic married lives. They grapple with the moral questions thrown up by police work, and the little, or not so little, complication of being attracted to each other. I particularly like Urs, the character of Giuliana’s husband, who is a freelance journalist, working all hours and keeping the home fires burning. Nice to come across a male character in this role.
The murders are brutal and gruesome as murders inevitably are but the violence is not the focus, nor is it there in any way to titillate – something that puts me off a lot of crime fiction, especially with female victims and sadistic killers. Kim writes the kinds of murders that could happen to people you know, involving murderers you might meet in the corner shop or a Dorffest (village festival).
Kim has a flair for dramatizing the investigation in a really interesting and human way, building momentum, unravelling all the knots, as her heroes doggedly search for the truth, and hopefully justice.
The suspense-filled stories take place in a Switzerland I recognise, an ordinary, gritty, diverse, and complicated place with secrets beneath the surface. The settings are pleasingly far from the clichés of bankers and Alps.
Here’s what you need to know about the opening action of Pesticide …
When a rave on a hot summer night in Bern erupts into violent riots, a young man is found the next morning bludgeoned to death with a policeman’s club. Giuliana Linder is assigned to the case. That same day, an elderly organic farmer turns up dead and drenched with pesticide. An unexpected discovery ties the two victims together.
If you want to order the book, you can find it in the usual online places. For Swiss deliveries I recommend Books Books Books in Lausanne or Stauffacher / Orell Füssli. The book is in the system so you should be able to order it anywhere in the US or Switzerland. Published by Seventh Street Books and distributed by Simon & Schuster.
To find out more about Kim Hays, check out her website and blog or read this interview on the Cosy Dragon website. I’ve known Kim since 2016 when I sat beside her at a writing workshop in the Geneva Writers’ Group and we got on like a house on fire.
A little more about my summer reads, which also fall into the category of liking the author before discovering their work. I am just about to start Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale about the life of the enigmatic British WW2 poet Charles Causley. Before that I read the wonderful Edith by Martina Devlin about the life of Edith Somerville around the time of the Irish War of Independence. I keep finding treasures in this booming genre of historical biofiction.
I have another book on the go about real-life conflict but I’m working through it slowly. It’s much harder to read because it’s set in (recent) present-day Ukraine and it brings the reader straight into the horror of what Russia has perpetrated there. The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan is visceral, depressing, eye-opening, staggering. If you think that’s too much to take, Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees is a gentler version of blighted lives in the occupied zones, more sweetly devastating but still hard hitting.
Finally, Voting Day was mentioned on this list of summer reads put together by Isabel Costello on her literarysofa blog, which I’ve been following for years. She found my novella “very moving and beautifully written”. I still can’t believe it when I get a reaction like this. Feeling very grateful.
You’re bound to find some reading inspiration on the list. Lest I forget, Isabel Costello’s highly enjoyable new novel Scentis the quintessential summer read, set between Provence and Paris. A heady summer affair from her youth comes to the surface for Clementine in a disturbing way just at the moment when her own marriage seems to be grinding to a painful, empty halt. Clementine is a successful perfumer with her own shop but the time has come to confront the façades in her life.
Happy summer reading, folks! Do report back if you pick up any of these titles.
Spring is in the air and I’m ready for more colour and connection. I think everybody feels the same. At the moment, I’m gearing up for the UK & Ireland launch of Voting Day with Fairlight Books on April 1st. The book will also be available in the United States which is very exciting (links to order below).
When Voting Day came out in Switzerland, this time last year, book shops were closed and the maximum number of people who were allowed to gather was five. It makes me all the more grateful for the opportunities coming up this year – especially an invitation to the legendary Listowel Writers’ Week!
Here are some dates for your diary if you live in Switzerland or Ireland:
March 8 BERN International Women’s Day event in Stauffacher Book Shop, Neuengasse in Bern. Stauffacher was founded in the 1950s and my book is set in Bern in the 1950s. Serendipity! My characters could have shopped there. I’m pretty sure Beatrice would have been a regular.
Doors open for the FRAUEN IM FOKUS event at 8pm. There’ll be music from pop duo Cruise Ship Misery and I’ll be in conversation with the German translator of Voting Day, Barbara Traber. Come along, bring your friends, and let’s celebrate books, women’s rights, music and other positive things. Tickets (CHF 15.00) and more info here. The event is in German.
April 6 ZURICH at the Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum). As part of the current exhibition Amazingly ambivalent (Wunderbar widersprüchlich), I’ll be giving a short tour and talk on the topic of contradictions in Switzerland. The tour, in German again, starts at 6pm. You can reserve a place at this link.
April 21 DUBLIN for the launch of Voting Day (Fairlight Books) in Hodges Figgis Book Shop, Dawson Street. After two years of cancellations and missed opportunities, I’m not missing the chance to celebrate the new edition of Voting Day. The book will be launched by the lovely Anne Griffin, author of Listening Still. The launch starts at 6pm and everyone is welcome. The more the merrier!
June 1 – 5 LISTOWEL WRITERS’ WEEK in Co. Kerry. One of Ireland’s longest-running book festivals, Listowel Writers’ Week is a famously friendly and stimulating occasion. Lots of great writers have been part of the festival over the years and I’m truly honoured to be asked to present Voting Day in this beautiful part of the world. Date of the event to be confirmed.
For all my books I’ve worked with small publishers and no agent. It’s been a bit of a rocky road but somehow, good things keep happening – just in the nick of time – that make it all worthwhile. I hope I get to meet some of this blog’s readers in person over the next couple of months.
Here are those links I promised to buy Voting Day in different places:
And you might enjoy this review I wrote for the Dublin Review of Books of Rosita Sweetman’s wonderful memoir Feminism Backwards. One last link in this link-fest – I really enjoyed writing this essay for the booksbywomen.org website about time travellers and book research. Have you spoken to any time travellers recently?
Marriage is great fodder for fiction. ColmTóibín’s latest novel, The Magician, tells the story of the life of Thomas Mann. In a sweeping narrative, it takes in German culture and politics of the first half of the twentieth century, Mann’s creative life, as well as his family and erotic life. But most of all, according to the author, it’s the story of a marriage.
Tóibín came to Zurich this week, and I jumped at the chance to hear him talk. He was interviewed on stage in a gorgeous venue, the 100-year-old Kaufleuten, a legendary nightclub, pub-restaurant and cultural space. It’s the kind of place Mann might have frequented when he lived in Zurich. James Joyce once had a play staged there.
The character of Mann craves a lot of things – stability, routine, recognition, young men’s bodies. He was one of many homosexual men of his time who married for convenience or safety. Yet his marriage to Katia Pringsheim, a student of physics and mathematics from one of the wealthiest families in Germany, was no less interesting for that.
“The marriage was intense, and the loyalty between them was intense, and the love was intense. It was in many ways a great relationship,” Tóibín said.
I agree, at least in how Tóibín depicts the relationship. But Katia remains a bit of a mystery. Once in the book, there is a scene where she is pressed to justify why she married Mann and she says it’s personal. All she reveals is that her father was a philanderer and she knew she would never have that trouble with Mann (who obviously fancied her beautiful twin brother). Marriage to Mann gave Katie a certain freedom. Coming from a rich, cultured, high-achieving family, he was a prize for her too.
Katia Mann is shown tolerating her husband’s roving eye and infatuations for boys and young men. More than that, she is quite magnanimous about it. Mann’s sexual life was mainly lived in his head and he rarely dared to follow up on these feelings. She seems to have understood that. Now I’m making the same mistake as the moderator on Wednesday night, treating the book as if it were a biography, and Tóibín the biographer.
A rich tapestry
Mann’s life is so interesting – a gay man, literary genius, dissident, exile, father of six extraordinary children, the most famous German voice in the United States during the war – it’s easy to get sucked into only thinking about him.
So, more about the writing. It’s a linear narrative from childhood in Lübeck to the end of his life in Switzerland, divided into chapters entitled the year and place. Overall, a rich tapestry. After lingering in Lübeck, the story skips along through Mann’s career and home life. We enjoy dinner party conversations with a great number of clever and unconventional people, there are terribly poignant scenes of Mann receiving tragic news, his imaginings and travels, moments and settings where he got his ideas – the Davos sanitorium, the famous Lido in Venice – and regular interactions with (mostly negative) political events.
We see the marriage in action, in their conversations and habits, getting to the point as readers where we know what is unsaid between Thomas and Katia. But Tóibín never shows us any physical intimacy between the pair. I wish I’d had a chance to ask why he shied away from the marital bed but there were no questions from the audience.
I managed to scribble down a few notes in the dark. “There’s a difference always between what we think we feel, what we feel and what we say. A novel can show that gap,” Tóibín said.
The German question
The Irish writer had plenty of research material at his disposal to fill that gap. The lives of the Manns have been exhaustively documented in diaries, contemporary accounts and biographies. We even heard Thomas Mann’s voice in the Kauflauten theatre from a 1942 broadcast in English, one of several speeches he made railing against the Nazis. A nice touch.
Mann’s brother Heinrich and three of Thomas Mann’s children were also writers, so we also have their body of work to add to Mann’s oeuvre. Many of the Mann circle were the subjects of biographies themselves. Tóibín credits 35 works in the back of his book. It must have been quite a struggle to stop researching and start writing.
Interestingly, all of the titles Tóibín mentions are in English and I wonder how Germans feel about an Irish writer (researching in English) speaking for Mann who is after all a national treasure. But Tóibín didn’t want to be drawn on this. The interviewer Blas Ulibarri tried to ask about the German reception to the book but Tóibín just said, “the Germans are very nice” and pointedly put his microphone back down on the table. Because he came straight from a book tour in Germany, we would all like to have heard more.
Anyway, I loved the book. A lot happens, there are many scene changes, just as there were in Mann’s life – from his staid home city of Lübeck to Munich, Lugano, South of France, Princeton, Los Angeles and back to Switzerland.
The Nazis’ rise to power is the dramatic engine of the middle part of the book, not just because it forces the Manns into exile but because of the delay before Mann publicly denounced Hitler. His timidity almost cost him the love of some family members. But Tóibín makes this conflict between Mann’s private views and his public position an understandable failing.
Mann’s routine is dull and unchanging, working every morning in his study wherever he lives, taking meals and having conversations with his wife and children, receiving visitors. This lack of action presented a challenge, Tóibín said, but he clearly overcame the challenge. There is ample external drama in between the quiet days: complications with Mann’s mother and siblings, the horror of the Second World War and the unruly behaviour of his children.
Three out of six younger Manns were gay, two of them openly and joyously so, in the years before Hitler choked all the joy out of German life. The same three – Klaus, Erika and Golo Mann – were also prolific writers. All the Mann children were damaged by the experience of losing their homeland, however much they were protected by their parents’ great wealth.
Tóibín’sThe Magician(Penguin) is the third great work of biofiction I’ve read this year, all by Irish writers. If you want more after finishing The Magician, I highly recommend Nora (New Island) by Nuala O’Connor, a banquet of a novel written in the voice of James Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle. Covering the same era, it’s another story of fame, genius, an unconventional marriage, the peripatetic life and difficulties with grown children.
A Quiet Tide by Marianne Lee is the third title, a masterful debut, also published by New Island Books. It tells the story of the great Irish botanist Ellen Hutchins, a solitary and tragic figure. A fascinating and moving novel that depicts the complexity of early nineteenth century Ireland in exquisite detail.
That should be enough reading to keep you occupied when the clocks go back. I have no decent photos from the Kaufleuten venue so I opted for this street view of the famous Bahnhofstrasse nearby. It was fun travelling to another city for a night of culture and meeting writing friends, especially with Thomas Mann’s story so fresh in my mind.
Have you been to a reading recently? If you’re in the mood, the Dublin Book Festival is running until November 12with a fantastic online programme. Have a great weekend!
My reading list for the first half of the year was weighted in favour of two authors who came to Switzerland, Jonathan Coe from Britain and Andrey Kurkov from Ukraine. I was invited to moderate a discussion with the visiting authors at the Bibliotopia Festival in Montricher in May. Apart from being talented and prolific writers from newsworthy countries, Coe and Kurkov are kindred spirits.
Born in the same year, 1961, both Coe and Kurkov are keen musicians. They both use humour to lampoon the social and political woes of their respective countries. Their work is a pleasure to read, which is just as well because I had to read their books in bulk in a short space of time – The Rotters’ Club, Number 11 and Middle England by Coe, and Death and the Penguin, Ukraine Diaries and The President’s Last Love by Kurkov. I recommend all of the above and I look forward to reading more from these authors.
Hailed as a post-Soviet Kafka, Kurkov’s work is whimsical on the surface with a dark undercurrent. In Death and the Penguin, the eponymous penguin is called Misha and he lives with a lonely writer called Viktor. Misha exhibits human-like emotions, or at least Viktor interprets his behaviour that way. At one stage, Misha looks at his master and considers him ‘with the heartfelt sincerity of a worldly-wise party functionary’. Hungry for work, Viktor agrees to take on the task of writing advance obituaries of VIPs for a newspaper editor. All seems fine until his first subject meets an untimely end. Before long there is an epidemic of untimely ends in the bulging obituary file, as Viktor finds himself ensnared by powerful forces. Through Viktor’s circumstances, Kurkov is making a commentary on corruption and the cheapness of life in Ukraine.
“All was well, or appeared so. To every time, its own normality. The once terrible was now commonplace, meaning that people accepted it as the norm and went on living, instead of getting needlessly agitated. For them, as for Viktor, the main thing, after all, was still to live, come what may.”
In a similar vein, the satirical gem The President’s Last Love, gives us wickedly funny characters in outlandish situations. Following the life of the fictional serving president of Ukraine, Bunin, from his youth in the 1980s, we witness the combination of cluelessness and opportunism which helps him climb up the greasy pole of politics. Bunin goes from an amoral hand-to-mouth existence to an amoral gilded existence, always entangled in blighted love affairs and sustained by heavy drinking. Ironically, when he has the most power, he has the least freedom. Even the new heart he received in a transplant comes with strings attached. You will learn more about post-Soviet Ukraine in this highly-entertaining book than you would from reading a hundred articles, and the story will make you laugh and cry. I can’t wait to read Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees set in the Donbass grey zone, which is about to be published in English.
The third book of Kurkov’s I read was his Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev which covers the time of the Maidan protests in 2013/2014. Kurkov lived a short distance away from the square where all the action happened and travelled extensively around the country during those months.
The juxtaposition of everday family life, planting vegetables at the dacha, attending literary events, throwing children’s birthday parties, with the danger, lies and absurdity of the political situation is a great way to capture recent history. It is fascinating to accompany Kurkov, an ethnic Russian, as he experiences the revolution first-hand and observes the crafty machinations of neighbouring Russia.
Incidentally, another speaker at the Bibliotopia festival, the literary activist Mikhail Shishkin, had some alarming things to say about Russia. The Swiss-based author explained that there is a civil war happening in Russia on the internet. “The frontlines are clear and everyone knows what side they are on,” he said. He warned that the war would inevitably go offline into the real world. The problem with Russia has always been the transition of power. “Russia now is pregnant with new states,” he said, predicting that the day Putin is gone, the whole system of Russia will fall apart.
Speaking of formerly powerful empires falling apart, Jonathan Coe does a wonderful job of excavating the cracks running through British society. His twelfth and most recent novel, Middle England, is being referred to as the great Brexit novel. Some of the main characters have appeared in two previous books, The Rotters’ Club and Closed Circle, but Middle England stands alone as a hugely satisfying read. Coe refers to these books as “panoramic serio-comic political novels”.
Middle England gives us the latest portrait of a nation, striking a pleasant harmony between light and dark notes. What shines through is how exceedingly clever and compassionate Coe is, another thing he has in common with Kurkov. Coe gently savages the dull and prosperous areas of “deep England”, graced with enormous garden centres, palaces of time-wasting for those with leisure and money. This is the heartland of Conservative voters who rely on the we-won-two-World-Wars argument no matter what the political question. The absolute rejection of the other side’s point of view, as seen in the divisions between the characters, is not a million miles away from the online civil war in Russia to which Shishkin referred.
Coe takes a broad canvas when he writes about British society, from the London Riots of 2011 to the Brexit campaign to the influence of trans rights activists in academia, all featured in Middle England. With more action and an even broader sweep, Number 11 is a fantastic read. Coe has packed a lot in, very successfully from the uber-rich of London to reality TV to food banks. A series of episodes with interconnected characters, the novel features a mini police drama and a delightful fable about the quest for the security and innocence of lost childhood. It even takes a horror-movie like turn at one point.
The black humour in The Rotters’ Club is even more pronounced. This time we are back in the 1970s, in the youth of Benjamin Trotter. Set in Birmingham where Coe is from, the novel features a big cast of characters. Like Kurkov in The President’s Last Love, this novel is closely aligned with the writer’s generation, time and place. There are stories within stories in The Rotters’ Club and plenty of characters with strongly-held opinions. An interesting way to explore the class system, labour relations, teenage angst and creativity, friendship, sexual discovery, police violence, music and more.
And all along, there are real events which shape the characters’ lives, none more so than the scene (spoiler alert) where two characters are caught up in one of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. Coe builds up to the horrible climax so masterfully that its impact is devastating. You think you are in a sweet, love scene but you are actually in a vicious death scene. I hardly ever have the experience of being too shocked to continue reading but I had to put the book down for a while to recover after that scene. Not that there is any gore, just an awful realisation.
I’m going to squeeze in just one more title on the subject of politics. Another writer at the festival (it really was a fantastic line-up) was Philippe Sands, the author of East West Street, published in 2016.
This non-fiction book is partly a memoir and has been hugely popular, even though it is a fairly dense read. The city of Lvov / Lviv / Lemberg is at the heart of the book, along with the Nuremberg trials. Sands traces the stories of three Jewish men and their families from Lviv (now in Ukraine), one of whom is his own grandfather. The other two were legal scholars who ended up connected to the post-war trial through their work on the definition of genocide and crimes against humanity.
East West Street is a powerful and important book. How the author managed to write about those terrible years in such a restrained way is admirable. I loved all the personal details in the background of the three men. Accompanying Sands on his research quest was a great way to tell the interlocking stories. My only complaint is that there was too much repetition of the genocide versus crimes against humanity argument. Sands himself is a human rights lawyer.
So many books, so little time. Thanks to Goodreads, I know that I have read 25 books in the first 25 weeks of this year. When I finish Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered it’ll be a neat one book per week for the first half of the year.
Finally, some snippets of news to do with my work in Switzerland. Back in April, I was invited to take part in the Sunday radio show Les Hautes Parleurs on RTS radio to talk about Brexit. The interview (in French) was filmed and you can view the recording here.
Shortly before that I was the Sonntagsgast (Sunday guest) on the Regionaljournal programme on German-language Swiss public radio, Radio SRF 1. That was a more wide-ranging discussion in German. Meanwhile I am putting the finishing touches to a new writing project, and I will have exciting news about that next month.
That’s all folks. Enjoy your summer reading and do let me know if you take the plunge with Kurkov and Coe!
Today I am celebrating the good news that the French and German translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths are out in the world. My copies arrived this week and I am delighted with the look and feel of the new books.
The publication of the translations coincides with the publication of the second edition of the original version, which has an extra chapter on the Swiss relationship with the European Union. For more about the second edition, check out this interview. The books are available online from the publishers Bergli Books and Helvetiq (German, French), from the usual online booksellers and in all good book shops in Switzerland.
The German title is Die Wahre Schweiz, which means the true or the real Switzerland, and the French is La Suisse mise à nu, which means Switzerland laid bare. The subtitles of both are the same: ‘A people and their 10 myths’. It has been a fascinating process working the with the translators to produce a text that was faithful to the original, as well as being crystal clear to readers from other cultures.
Also today, Swiss author Hans Durrer published a glowing review of The Naked Swiss, in which he praised the book as “highly informative”, “profoundly balanced” and “good storytelling”.
And the final bit of good news is the launch of this book trailer, created by Bergli Books. Enjoy!
The cold and the snow are on everybody’s mind and doorstep this week in Europe. In Switzerland we have had a week of extreme cold. Wednesday was the worst, minus fourteen in the morning. When I walked the dog at the edge of the Gottéron Valley I thought the cold wind racing down from the Alps would crack my cheekbones.
I just finished reading Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, set in Leningrad in the desperate years of 1941/2 where the cold plays a fateful part. My brush with wind chill inspired me to look for some great descriptions of cold and snow in literature, beginning with The Siege. In this scene, the main character is on her way to the bakery to queue for bread. She is suffering from malnutrition because of food shortages.
“It’s cold, so cold. Anna adjusts the scarf she has wound around her face. She’ll rest for a couple of minutes. No longer than that, because in her weakened state the cold could easily finish her off. The scorching frost goes down into her lungs like a knife. She coughs, gasps, shifts her weight from foot to foot, and bats her hands together. Her gloved hands make a muffled, ghostly sound. She thinks of the bulbs under their coverlets of snow, and shivers.”
This is such a beautiful novel, describing searing hardship in a wonderfully sympathetic way with characters who emerge as more important than the crushing heel of history.
The other examples I found happen to come from short stories. I love this scene from George Saunders’ Tenth of December featuring Don Eber, an old man on a suicide bid who has stripped off in a remote area in sub-zero temperature and is talking to himself.
“Nausea had not been mentioned in The Humbling Steppe.
A blissful feeling overtook me as I drifted off to sleep at the base of the crevasse. No fear, no discomfort, only a vague sadness at the thought of all that remained undone. This is death? I thought. It is but nothing.
Author, whose name I cannot remember, I would like a word with you.
The shivering was insane. Like a tremor. His head was shaking on his neck. He paused to puke a bit in the snow, white-yellow against the white-blue.
This was scary. This was scary now.
Every step was a victory. He had to remember that. With every step he was fleeing father and father. Farther from father. Stepfarther. What a victory he was wresting. From the jaws of the feet.
He felt a need at the back of his throat to say it right.
From the jaws of defeat. From the jaws of defeat.”
There’s a very chilly and chilling scene in Them Old Cowboy Songs from Annie Proulx’s collection Fine Just the Way It Is. Archie is the unlucky young cowboy who has been sent out to round up stray cows in Wyoming in January.
“Back in the swamp it was just coming light, like grey polish on the cold world, the air so still Archie could see the tiny breath cloud of a finch on a willow twig. Beneath the hardened crust the snow was wallowy. His fresh horse was Poco, who did not know swamps. Poco blundered along, stumbled into an invisible sinkhole and took Archie deep with him. The snow shot down his neck, up his sleeves, into his boots, filled eyes, ears, nose, matted his hair. Poco, in getting up, rammed his hat deep into the bog. The snow in contact with his body heat melted, and as he climbed back into the saddle the wind that accompanied the pale sunlight froze his clothes. Somehow he managed to push eight Wing-Cross strays out of the swamp and back toward the high ground, but his matches would not light and while he struggled to make a fire the cows scattered. He could barely move and when he got back to the bunkhouse he was frozen into the saddle and had to be pried off the horse by two men. He heard cloth rip.”
And finally, the most well-known and the most exquisite, the ending of James Joyce’s The Dead, when Gabriel Conroy looks out the window at the snow after his wife has told him about a boy she loved who died many years before.
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Stay warm, folks!
Ps. I’m attending the Geneva Writers Conference this weekend, weather permitting, and really looking forward to immersing myself in writing talk and ideas.
Pps. The photo is a view of Lake Brienz taken from Axalp in the Bernese Oberland.
This time sixty years ago, Iris von Roten was putting the finishing touches to her life’s work, a 600-page cri de coeur on the woeful position of women in Swiss society. A journalist and lawyer, von Roten put years of research into her book, Frauen im Laufgitter: Offene Worte zur Stellung der Frau (Women in the Playpen: Plain Words About the Situation of Women). In ruthless and unsentimental terms, she examined subects like equality in the workplace (or lack thereof), civil rights, domestic drudgery, motherhood and sexuality. This is a work of fire and fury, the product of a free spirit who all around her saw women in chains.
To give you a taste of von Roten’s style and themes, here is a short passage I translated from the opening chapter, “Female professional activity in a man’s world”.
“Every era has its favourite illusions, and one of the most cherished of our century is that of “the modern woman”, the professionally equal, independent and successful woman.
The “woman of today” supposedly has extensive professional fields open to her; in contrast to her grandmother she is active in every job at every level. Even the most prestigious and highly-paid jobs are not out of reach of the capable woman. Where such positions are not yet occupied by women it is only because no woman has yet deigned to clamber up and take the place that the progressive man is hurrying to offer her. Just like a young man, the young woman can attain the job that corresponds to her talents, standing on her own two feet. To wait for a man, to marry so as to be provided for, this is unknown to today’s woman. She marries purely for love, when and whom she wishes, which allows her to complete the work of art – the combination of job, housework and motherhood – running the show and “mastering life with a laugh”. Beside the modern woman stands the progressive man, filled with admiring awe for the proud swan that the ugly duckling has become. He has long ago freed his mind of prejudices and slowly but surely clears the way for the equality of the sexes in the life of the family, the economy and the state.
The reality, however, looks different in some places, and especially in Switzerland.”
You’ve got to love that sarcasm. I would like to see von Roten’s work gain wider recognition in the English-speaking world. Her radical book/manifesto is one of the leading feminist texts of the twentieth century and there is still a lot to learn from it.
For a brief update on the position of women in Switzerland today, check out this article I wrote for the current edition of International School Parent Magazine: Working mothers in Switzerland – something has to give. I’ll start you off here with the opening two paragraphs.
“Switzerland manages to successfully project two flattering but contradictory images side-by-side. On the one hand, it is a rural mountain idyll populated by wholesome country folk, and dotted with chalets, ski resorts and pretty medieval towns. On the other hand, it is a sophisticated economic hub powered by a productive and innovative workforce.
It is nice balance if you can spend your working hours in business Switzerland and your free time in bucolic Switzerland. But for women, it is certainly not easy if you are expected to raise a family in the traditional model while facing all the challenges of the modern workplace. Something has to give.” (Read more)
Carnival season is kicking off in Switzerland. It’s hugely popular but I’ve never really enjoyed carnival much, if I may admit that. I like the effigy (Rababou) burning in Fribourg because, after the long speech, it’s the only part where I don’t feel bored and cold!
Von Roten’s book came out in the autumn of 1958, a few months before Swiss men voted by a two-thirds majority to deny women the right to vote. She had hoped that her carefully constructed arguments would win hearts and minds. But instead of seeing her ideas analysed and debated, von Roten was personally attacked and villified in the media. Some even blamed her for the negative outcome of the vote. Most painfully, she was ridiculed at the Basel carnival, her fellow townsfolk having spent the winter preparing elaborate costumes and floats on the theme of her book.
But don’t let me ruin carnival for anyone. Depending on where you go, it can be spectacular and wild. If you have any good carnival tips or experiences to share, let me know in the comments. I’d also be really interested to hear your thoughts on Iris von Roten’s work.
How much do you know about your favourite authors? Do you know what they are currently working on, their likes and dislikes, how they spend their free time? If I think of my favourite living writers, I have only the vaguest idea of biographical details or personality. When did we stop thinking this was normal?
The current wisdom on author platform suggests that the author inspires people to buy the book. What this means is that authors are under pressure to hook readers using their online presence. This is supposed to be a liberating development but the danger is it can enslave authors to the idea that they should Always Be Closing.
I once heard indie publishing guru Jane Friedman give a talk about platform where she said that people need to hear about a book an estimated eight times before they buy it. Does this mean authors have to make a lot of noise for their books to get noticed? It seems the lower down you are on the success chain, the less likely it is anyone else will make the noise for you, so yes.
As a reader, I don’t feel much curiosity about the person behind the book. I don’t feel the need to get to know them. If they are good I just want to keep reading their work. But most of my favourite authors have a high profile. Would I forget about them if their names didn’t keep popping up in the media?
In fact, I do forget about them for long stretches of time until I hear a radio interview, or see a festival programme, a tweet, a review. So these reminders are important, even for established writers. The author website is important too. We need to make it easy for our work to be discovered. After that it’s a question of narrowing down the best tools from a host of possibilities, including Facebook, Twitter, blogging, interviews, Goodreads, blog tours, giveaways, Youtube videos, podcasts, not to mention giving talks in person. But it’s impossible to do everything. It’s better to focus on the activities you are most comfortable with.
To approach the idea of platform from the other direction, a few days ago, I was asked for some book recommendations by a friend who has moved to a remote location. Two of the three books I recommended – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The Return by Hisham Matar were written by authors I had met at Le Livre sur les Quais festival at Morges last month. A literary festival or is a great source of inspiration but they don’t come along that often.
The other place I get ideas from is bookshops, and I am always glad to see my own book so well displayed in Swiss book shops. The other day I bought the new John le Carré at Dublin airport, which would not be a typical choice for me. And I’m enjoying it so far. Another book I’d like to recommend is Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe, An Elegy for Easterly.
Book blogs, like A Life in Books , are also a great source of reviews and ideas. Friends also recommend books and I receive books as presents, most recently Roddy Doyle’s new novel Smile. Apart from that, media coverage plays a big role in the search for new titles, but that’s usually when it’s an author whose work I already know and like. Because I have no access to newspapers in English, the main places I come across reviews or book talk are Facebook and Twitter, so that kind of link sharing also comes into play.
It’s been one year since my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published, I haven’t figured out all the mysteries of the author platform yet. But thinking about it certainly helps. What do you, as a reader or an author, find most useful or appealing in authors’ online activity? Do you have any dos and don’ts to share?